In the Val­ley of Gods

Campo Santo’s co­founders take us into In The Val­ley Of Gods

PC GAMER (US) - - CONTENTS - By Philippa Warr

Campo Santo—the stu­dio be­hind the con­tem­pla­tive for­est ex­pe­ri­ence Fire­watch— is swap­ping tin­der-dry trees and Wy­oming fire look­out tow­ers for an­cient Egyp­tian tombs and early cin­e­matog­ra­phy in its next game, In the Val­ley of Gods. Its an­nounce­ment trailer of­fered a glimpse of a first-per­son ad­ven­ture set deep in the Egyp­tian desert of the ’20s. You and a part­ner scram­ble through stun­ning ru­ined spa­ces be­fore set­ting up a shot for your beau­ti­fully an­i­mated film cam­era. The duo, as stu­dio co­founders Sean Vana­man and Jake Rod­kin tell me, are Rashida and Zora—film­mak­ers whose ca­reers have hit the skids. The women are us­ing their last chance at re­sources to try to make a hit doc­u­men­tary.

But a doc­u­men­tary must have a sub­ject, and thus Rashida and Zora have de­cided to in­ves­ti­gate the ru­mor that an ob­scure ar­chae­ol­o­gist has dis­cov­ered the tomb of Ne­fer­titi. “They’re de­ter­mined to be the ones who make the movie about its dis­cov­ery,” ex­plains Rod­kin.

“Yeah, they’re go­ing to be there with cam­eras rolling when he dis­cov­ers this tomb,” says Vana­man. “In the world which we oc­cupy, which is the world the char­ac­ters oc­cupy, [Ne­fer­titi’s burial place] is one of the last great un­found things. There’s a lot of ru­mor and ar­chae­o­log­i­cal spec­u­la­tion that per­haps it was found but not re­ally iden­ti­fied be­cause it didn’t have the scope and grandeur one would as­so­ciate with some­one as pro­lific as Ne­fer­titi, or it’s still out there, or, or, or, or…”

He adds, “In terms of the so­cio­cul­tural, his­tor­i­cal, ar­chae­o­log­i­cal as­pects of the game, we’re try­ing to keep that stuff founded in re­al­ity. Our art di­rec­tor [Claire Hum­mel] is in­cred­i­bly well read and well re­searched about Egypt, not just in an­cient times, but in the time in which the game is set.”

In fact, it was an im­age called 1923 in Hum­mel’s port­fo­lio which in­spired the game in the first place.

“We were at a time when we’d can­celled a game and… ideas aren’t su­per pre­cious,” says Vana­man. “Some­body who is as tal­ented as Claire is, you could open up her port­fo­lio and, aside from her An­i­morphs fan art, you could make a game about any­thing.” (Rod­kin dis­putes the ex­clu­sion of the An­i­morphs fa­nart, by the way.)

art in­spi­ra­tion

1923 struck a par­tic­u­lar chord. Vana­man was look­ing for some­thing that tapped into the stu­dio’s am­bi­tions, as well as pro­vid­ing a point of dif­fer­ence—he knew, for ex­am­ple, that lead artist Jane Ng did not want to make trees. “We knew we didn’t want to go back into the woods. We didn’t know if we wanted to do some­thing in­te­rior or ex­te­rior— maybe a blend of those two.”

Ex­plain­ing why he grav­i­tated to­wards 1923, Vana­man points out the level of in­ter­est and care when it comes to el­e­ments like the hi­ero­glyph­ics, the con­fi­dence ex­pressed in the im­age, the col­ors and tex­tures which sidestepped pa­pyrus ef­fects and Egyp­tian blue ac­cents in fa­vor of pinks and greens on an Art Deco-es­que poster.

“It was a piece you could look at and won­der what other sto­ries could be told in Claire Hum­mel’s ver­sion of Egypt,” says Rod­kin. “It was about that era and about Egyp­to­ma­nia but it was clearly from some­one who had an un­der­stand­ing of and re­spect for the an­cient Egyp­tian cul­ture as well.”

The game that is re­sult­ing from this ini­tial art­work is at the lim­i­nal stage be­tween pre­pro­duc­tion and pro­duc­tion. There are tools in place, and the trailer of­fers a state­ment of in­tent, a col­lec­tion of art as­sets, and it can act as a point of ref­er­ence for the team, but the game it­self is still in sep­a­rate parts at the mo­ment.

“We don’t have that piece where you go, ‘Oh man, be­tween char­ac­ter per­for­mance and di­a­logue and mu­sic and light­ing and flow and the way this level loads in…’” Vana­man says. “How do all the dis­ci­plines come to­gether to pro­duce the feel­ing that you see in the trailer? That’s the stuff we’re work­ing on now, then we’ll build the game with a lot of me­chan­ics.”

The idea is that you’ll be walk­ing around these spa­ces in the game, ex­plor­ing them and talk­ing to the other char­ac­ter, Zora. In do­ing so you make choices and you build that re­la­tion­ship. Where Fire­watch feeds you snip­pets of an­other char­ac­ter—a stranger—via ra­dio con­ver­sa­tion, in In the Val­ley of Gods Rashida al­ready has a back­story with Zora, and you es­tab­lish that as you play.

“You guys have bag­gage, you have con­flict,” says Vana­man. “It’s re­ally a story about the chasm be­tween friends who need each other and cocre­ators who need each other and how you trust each other based on the past trans­gres­sions of the par­tic­i­pants.”


He adds that Zora and Rashida also ex­ist at the in­ter­sec­tion of two male-dom­i­nated fields in the ’20s— ar­chae­ol­ogy and film­mak­ing. “We think all that stuff is su­per in­ter­est­ing. How do you nav­i­gate friend­ship? How do you nav­i­gate the world? How do you nav­i­gate the mys­tery? And, on top of that, in­stead of hav­ing a ra­dio in this game, you have your doc­u­men­tary film cam­era that al­lows you to see the world through a dif­fer­ent con­text, and cap­ture it and cut it up and recre­ate it.”

In Fire­watch you could pick up a dis­pos­able film cam­era and take photos in-game. Those would show up while the cred­its rolled, as well as be­ing avail­able to or­der as a phys­i­cal sou­venir, but they weren’t an in­te­gral part of the tale. The doc­u­men­tary el­e­ment of In the Val­ley of Gods means recorded im­agery will take on far greater sig­nif­i­cance, but the ex­act for­mat is a work in progress.

“We have a lot of ideas around that, from as bonkers as when you look through the cam­era the world looks dif­fer­ent, all the way to you’re edit­ing your own movie,” ex­plains Vana­man. “We don’t know where the sweet spot is for any of that stuff [yet].” As Rod­kin puts it, “It seems like the­mat­i­cally that’s go­ing to be in the game, but how it’s ex­pressed through me­chan­ics and to what de­gree that’s ex­pressed in the me­chan­ics, we’re still fig­ur­ing out.”

Rod­kin draws an un­ex­pected par­al­lel while dis­cussing the mo­ment when Rashida is load­ing the cam­era up with a cas­sette. “I had fun think­ing about, ‘What is an old silent movie cam­era?’ It ac­tu­ally feels to me like the re­ally pro­longed and su­per sat­is­fy­ing an­i­ma­tion that plays when you are the De­mo­man in Team Fortress 2 and you reload your grenade launcher. That’s all I was think­ing about when talk­ing to James about how to an­i­mate that scene!”

The cam­era ideas have been put to one side. In the Val­ley of Gods aims to have Rashida’s film­mak­ing part­ner, Zora, mean­ing­fully present. Build­ing that as­pect of the game is what the team are fo­cused on right now.

“We wanted to do some­thing that had some pretty high-paced mad­cap char­ac­ter in­ter­ac­tion so... cha­rade is a great word maybe,” says Vana­man. “Char­ac­ters go­ing from one thing to an­other and mov­ing through the space quip­ping at each other.”

feel­ing con­nected

The main chal­lenge is mak­ing it feel like the char­ac­ters are aware of each other. “We’re try­ing to fig­ure out where’s the most bang for the buck in terms of char­ac­ter per­for­mance, dy­namic be­hav­ior, and scripted be­hav­ior and be­hav­ior tree script­ing ver­sus straight-up trig­ger­based script­ing,” says Vana­man.

He adds, “When we wanted you to feel some­thing be­cause of Delilah say­ing it, it was the sim­plest thing in the world! I wrote the num­ber of a .wav file in a field, and then I told the com­puter to wait 0.4 sec­onds be­fore she says this or two sec­onds be­fore she says this, and then I hit save and it worked. This is not that.”

Rod­kin talks in terms of old movie spe­cial ef­fects doc­u­men­taries where you see in­di­vid­ual tech­niques be­ing mixed and matched to find a so­lu­tion to a par­tic­u­lar chal­lenge. “You keep fail­ing with all these things un­til you get the mo­ment of sus­pen­sion of dis­be­lief and go, ‘Okay, I be­lieved for a few min­utes right there that that was an ac­tual per­son I was in a room with.’”

There are a num­ber of lay­ers. Firstly, there is the real an­cient Egyp­tian civ­i­liza­tion. Se­condly, there is the game’s ’20s set­ting, which taps into Egyp­to­ma­nia and the fetishiza­tion and trends ac­com­pa­ny­ing it. Thirdly, there’s the con­tem­po­rary world of Campo Santo and the player­base, where very dif­fer­ent con­ver­sa­tions about cul­tural de­struc­tion, repa­tri­a­tion, and ap­pro­pri­a­tion take place. So where is Campo Santo pitch­ing its game tonally?

“A lot of the way we work as a group and a lot of the way I’ve al­ways worked as a writer is, we have mod­ern, pretty lefty feel­ings about shit,” says Vana­man. “But I don’t think we have declar­a­tive opin­ions about the way things should be. This game is not a po­lit­i­cal state­ment about rep­re­sen­ta­tion or a po­lit­i­cal state­ment about ap­pro­pri­a­tion of the past or what­ever.” He adds, “The act of mak­ing the game for us helps so­lid­ify or chal­lenge feel­ings we have held be­fore we had to make the game.”

There’s fur­ther in­sight into Zora and Rashida’s re­la­tion­ship: “Zora and Rashida got fa­mous seven years be­fore they make the game, mak­ing a movie we would now watch in film school and go that’s kind of fucked up.”

‘Fucked up’ in this in­stance means how we would now view el­e­ments of pro to doc­u­men­taries of that era, like Nanook of the North from Robert Fla­herty. Fla­herty is one point of ref­er­ence for the team but oth­ers range from mul­ti­ple vis­its to the Bri­tish Mu­seum in London to read­ing nov­els by Naguib Mah­fouz, like Palace Walk.

cursed co­in­ci­dence

There’s even the story of pro­gram­mer Aubrey Hes­sel­gren’s great-grand­uncle, Ge­orge Her­bert, fifth earl of Carnar­von, who likely died from an in­fected mos­quito bite. Pop­u­lar cul­ture prefers to at­tribute his death to the curse of the pharaohs, thanks to Her­bert’s back­ing of and in­volve­ment in Howard Carter’s ex­ca­va­tion of Tu­tankhamun’s tomb.

Deep dives into par­tic­u­lar re­search rab­bit holes are also com­mon for the team, and led Vana­man to ob­serve, “We were both thrilled and an­noyed about the preva­lence of how many cat mum­mies there were in As­sas­sin’s Creed Ori­gins be­cause we went on a six-month cat mummy ben­der.”

Rod­kin notes that, “Ev­ery an­cient Egyp­tian ruin is chron­i­cled to an ob­ses­sive de­gree. Both the ar­chi­tec­ture and the paint­ings, but also you can find a lot of hob­by­ists in the 1.0 web era did 3D vir­tual walk­throughs of tombs, and you can find com­plete maps deep into all of these an­cient ruins.

“It’s been in­ter­est­ing be­cause Egypt has been– Raid­ing tombs, be­lieve it or not, is a thing that has been done quite a lot in videogames. It’s been re­ally fun to work with Claire and Jane and Sean and Dun­can too—espe­cially Claire—to look at these real Egyp­tian ruins and try to get into the heads of the peo­ple who built those spa­ces and look at them as aes­thetic ob­jects to ex­plore and think about walk­ing through them.

“I found that re­ally a fun men­tal space to be in, to look at this im­agery I have seen in a lot of videogames and a lot of movies and think­ing about wan­der­ing through it re­ally slowly with an­other per­son—a char­ac­ter that you know in the fic­tion —and a cam­era.”

Rod­kin adds, “In Fire­watch we looked at a lot of na­tional parks and we’ve been to a lot of these places in the Amer­i­can West. But it’s not the same as look­ing at tiny paint­ings on a wall or carv­ings that you can run your thumb across and think­ing about what that ex­pe­ri­ence is like in a game and shar­ing that ex­pe­ri­ence with an­other char­ac­ter. That’s been re­ally fun.”

LEFT: The trailer shows off tomb en­vi­ron­ments rich in de­tail. RIGHT: This is 1923; the im­age from Claire Hum­mel’s port­fo­lio which set Campo Santo on the path to this game.

LEFT: The main char­ac­ters al­ready have bag­gage to nav­i­gate when it comes to their re­la­tion­ship. RIGHT: Campo Santo is cur­rently work­ing out how to make it feel like the char­ac­ters are aware of each other in the game space.

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